Directors: Rohan Sippy, Arjun Mukerjee
Writer: Apurva Asrani
Cast: Kirti Kulhari, Pankaj Tripathi, Anupriya Goenka, Deepti Naval, Jisshu Sengupta
Streaming Platform: Disney+ Hotstar
For the second time in two years, the Indian filmmakers tasked with adapting Peter Moffat’s UK justice-system series have made a boo-boo. The first season featured Vikrant Massey as a taxi driver accused of murder, and hoped to ride the breakout success of the Riz Ahmed-starring American version, The Night Of. It was John Turturro who stole the show as the scrappy small-time advocate – and the corresponding local character, Pankaj Tripathi’s Madhav Mishra, did the same. Not surprisingly then, unlike Moffat’s original, Madhav is one of the characters retained for the next season, Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors. I understand taking forward the only decent thing of a forgettable season, but force-fitting him into another more-than-forgettable season sort of defeats the purpose of long-form television. It’s a smart idea on paper, but an easy gimmick on screen.
This second season is essentially a female makeover of the first – starring Kirti Kulhari as Anuradha Chandra, a fragile woman on trial for stabbing her husband Bikram (Jisshu Sengupta), a famous Mumbai lawyer. Madhav the misfit of course emerges as Anu’s lawyer but he’s barely necessary; he’s only there because Tripathi is the OTT-platform MVP and Hindi cinema’s most watchable actor, and so Madhav encourages the other character retained, ex-colleague Nikhat Hussain (Anupriya Goenka), to lead their defense. The result is an 8-episode slow burn that’s five episodes too long, with a narrative too comfortable with the original premise to be an air-tight cultural translation. And quite frankly, post the release of Aarya in Hotstar’s remake universe, the bar is high enough to reveal something such as Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors for what it is: a simplistic, stretched, unimaginative crime thriller with the moral complexity of a coconut.
The bad news is that it has no business being so laboured. With themes like marital rape, mental health, domestic abuse and toxic masculinity at stake, it’s actually a minor miracle that not one of them is done justice to. We know she did it, so why she did it forms the core of the case. But the conceit is so thinly veiled and apparent from the get-go that it’s impossible to stay patient with any of the people – including and especially Anu. I know it’s mean, but at one point I really wanted to shake the quivering Anu out of her passive stupor because her silence is all that enables the series to keep continuing. (“Yaar yeh toh shok mein hai,” Madhav blurts out in the middle of their first meeting, frustrated by just how uncommunicative she is. Tripathi says it as such an off-the-cuff remark that he simply looks like an actor reacting to another actor).
Evidently, I have several problems with the show. I think the setting – of marriage as a recurring theme (two of the investigating officers are a couple, Madhav is newly married, Nikhat’s mother is in a toxic marriage) to reflect the marital dispute on trial – feels too deliberate. The makers miss a trick or three by not infusing the physical setting, too, into the story: Mumbai is the city, but we only see the insides of generic police stations, upper-class Bandra bungalows, offices and prison courtyards. Madhav’s is in fact a comic track, with the background score going all wonky when he interacts with his goofy wife. That’s usually the telltale sign of lazy writing: comedy interrupting tragedy the way item songs casually dislocate the most intense dramas. The lack of nuance is most visible during Anu’s prison life. Every female in there is a stale label: brown-faced naxalite, suicidal stoner, shrewd alpha, pregnant victim. They speak to each other as if they were the rejected extras of Traffic Signal, throwing glances as subtle as the greyness of a Jisshu Sengupta character. He does this Bollywood-meets-doctor-evil vibe to appear suspicious – every line prompts facial contortions – which robs the crucial incident in the first episode of any mystery and ambiguity. I know the Criminal Justice series is more about the process than the resolution, but it’s still never nice to start watching Gupt if Kajol kept looking sneaky.
Then there’s the 12-year-old daughter, who is so performative with her trauma and wiser-than-her-years persona that it’s no wonder she sides with her dead dad. All in all, the series is just awkwardly acted. Kirti Kulhari, who looks a lot like a young Sandra Bullock, fights a losing battle (with tears), and Anu’s narrative daze hijacks her one-note depiction of clinical depression. The series is just not adult enough to examine her psychological condition without puncturing the greyness of the story. It’s especially painful when Tripathi’s Madhav learns the word “woke” – he is required to say things (“pati patni aur woke?”) far below his reel intellect, and yet the actor delivers these moments like a playful headmaster humouring a school’s chaotic children.
Last but not least, the show has some of the most baffling shot transitions in recent memory. Most times, characters refuse to respond to their counterparts in a frame, and the scene ends. (“Why did you give in, sir?” – black stare, cut). At other times, they just walk out of a scene without warning. The cocky male investigating officer in particular has a habit of responding to his boss with a sarcastic one-liner and leaving the room. I’m all for turning the tables on bosses but with his behaviour he’s lucky not to be court-martialed every other day. The trial, too, follows suit: every time the two sets of lawyers make some headway in court, the judge calls for an adjournment. In a better show I might have read this as a necessary dig at the infamy of the Indian judicial system, but here it’s just a desperate device to turn Moffat’s five episodes into eight. Given that Moffat’s UK series only ran for two seasons, nothing points to the threat of another Indian installment. If there is a third, however, this review is hereby adjourned till then.